There are two major limitations when it comes to electric cars – battery range and charging infrastructure.
Without either of these, you’ll be hard-pressed to travel any more than 150 kilometres using a conventional pure electric vehicle. But electric car startup brand Tesla and its luxury-focused Model S turn convention on its head.
That’s because this sleek liftback sedan has the longest battery range of any pure electric – that is, non plug-in hybrid – car ever made, with up to 460 kilometres of claimed range. Aussie cars will come attached to an even higher claim, with 504km of range.
And it comes with its own fuel station network! Well, in some parts of the world, Tesla has rolled out its Supercharger fast charge network that allows the car’s batteries to be charged to full in about an hour.
So, what better way to figure out whether a long-distance road trip is possible in an electric car than to give the car its best chance of succeeding – and that’s exactly what we did on a recent trip to the United States.
The plan: to drive from Seattle to Los Angeles, a trip of more than 1800 kilometres – almost the same distance as traversing the Hume Highway from Brisbane to Melbourne. And, just like you would if you drove that trip, we’d be travelling through three states to our final destination.
Charging up: the idea is to rely upon the Tesla Supercharger network for as much of the journey as is possible – thus enabling us to figure out whether the car copes in its ideal environment.
The potential problems: running out of charge between cities, or when exploring beyond the Supercharger route.
Read on to find out how we fared on the first long-distance drive by an Australian media contingent in the Tesla Model S ahead of the car launching locally.
Leg one: Seattle, Washington to Portland, Oregon – 280 kilometres
We picked up our Tesla Model S at the company’s Seattle store – that’s right, it’s a shopfront rather than a conventional car dealership – in the funky suburb of South Lake Union.
The very friendly staff gave us a rundown on the key aspects of the Model S, and you can see the product walkaround with Alexis Georgeson of Tesla Motors communications division here.
Once we’d got a handle on the majority of the car’s systems, including some form of grasp over its all-encompassing, enormous 17.0-inch touchscreen media system, it was time to take in some of the sights that the Space Needle city had to offer.
That iconic, 184-metre tall observation tower is visible from plenty of places around the small but bustling city in the Pacific Northwest, but the most breathtaking viewing point is at Kerry Park, up on the hill in the suburb of Queen Anne, where you can also get a glimpse of Mount Rainier – considered one of the most dangerous volcanos in the world.
Queen Anne is home to some of the most astounding and outlandish architecture in the city, and while we would have liked to have spent more time cruising and perusing the streets, the open road beckoned.
We hit one of the States’ main arterial roads, the I-5 South, for the first time upon leaving Seattle, and based on our mapping – and Tesla’s infrastructure – we’d be spending most of our time on this mega highway, which at times has six lanes running either way. Just outside of Seattle we had stunning vistas across the plains to the mountains.
With more than 380km of range showing on our dashboard readout, we felt comfortable we’d make it to Portland and beyond to our first full Supercharger fill-up at the Woodburn Premium Outlets. That would’ve meant bypassing the opportunity to do a complete charge at the Centralia Supercharger, but for our first stint on the road, we simply couldn’t resist the opportunity to stop and plug in, if only briefly.
The notion behind Superchargers is that they give you a chance to quickly add up to 80 per cent charge. How quickly? Tesla claims it can take “as little as 20 minutes”, while a full charge (to 100 per cent) is achievable in about double that, depending on the charger you use. According to Tesla, charging the final bit takes approximately the same time because of “a necessary decrease in charging current to help top-off cells”.
So we let range anxiety – that lingering fear that you’ll run out of power before you reach a suitable charging station – get the better of us and popped in the plug … after attempting a few times to get the correct parking position: you need to make sure you’re back far enough if you reverse in, and the vision from the driver’s seat isn’t perfect. A self-parking option would fix that, and we expect Tesla will offer that as part of its Autopilot system soon.
We figured we would take the same tack as if there was a powerpoint nearby and you were worried about not having enough juice to take an important call. And the fact it doesn’t cost anything to charge (if you buy a mid- or top-end 85 model, or pay the option price of $2700 on the base model 60) makes it all the more enticing.
We kept moving down the I5-S and crossed our first state border via the stunning Interstate Bridge and over the Columbia River. Further down the highway there are numerous stunning bridges across the Willamette River that lead to a downtown area abundant in art deco architecture that is surprisingly quiet, making for a great avenue of exploration.
With more than enough juice to make it beyond Portland we decided to see some of the sights of the artsy, hipster town that’s known for its pubs, eateries and the riverside Saturday Markets (which, in a typical hipsterish way, also run on Sundays).
Beyond Portland, more highway kilometres beckoned.
Total distance covered so far: 280km
Leg two: Portland, Oregon to Mount Shasta, California – 581 kilometres
First stop on leg two: the outlets!
If you’ve ever travelled in the US, you know there’s only two things you can bank on when driving long distances: fast food and outlet malls. Where Aussies might plonk a roadhouse or a Maccas, usually you’ll find 10 different food places and more than 100 shops.
Tesla obviously realises that American drivers love food and shopping, so it has set up plenty of its Supercharger stations in close proximity to such amenities. And because charging up can take more than an hour, it makes sense to grab some grub or go bargain hunting. While the charging is free, it could become an expensive habit.
Our first full-on fill-up took place at the Woodburn Premium Outlets, about 50km south of Portland. We obliged our consumerist overlords and hit the shops, only to return with enough bags to fill the frunk (that’s the front-trunk – a 150 litre cargo hold where you’d normally find an engine). You can unlatch it by clicking the nose of the car-shaped key, but we found closing it to be quite a frustrating process. The boot, on the other hand, opened and closed electronically (kind of fitting for this type of car).
Storage was one of the most impressive features of the Tesla for the most part. Along with the frunk, the boot of the liftback sedan is capacious, with 744L – and our car even had hidden ‘jump’ seats that fold in to the floor and can be used for littlies. But that won’t be offered in Australia – more space for shopping bags, then.
With about 430km of predicted range showing on the driver display screen after our hour (or two!) at the shops, we again hit the road.
The landscape started to change the further away from Portland we got, with forests giving way to open farming paddocks, before rocky crags again came into sight as we passed by the exits to Salem, Dallas, Albany and Lebanon.
But, as happens when you’re on the road, nature called – so we pulled in when we saw the sign for Springfield (about 100km down the road) and plugged in for yet another top-up. This was the first Supercharger we stopped at where we saw other Teslas topping up, but the owners of the cars must have been staying at the Holiday Inn – the Supercharger station was located in the car park of the hotel.
This was another learning curve for us – while signage and predictable locations mean you can spot a 76 or Shell petrol station from the road, the Superchargers are often located away from the main road, in parking lots and even behind hotels.
For the most part, there are no large Tesla Supercharger signs – and that’s something we think may need to be addressed as time goes by and more buyers move to this form of car, as we found the onboard navigation system could fail to locate the exact location of the charging station. Thankfully, with 3G web access available at the driver’s (or passenger’s) fingertips, a quick search on the Supercharger page of the Tesla website means it’s easy to find written directions and even a Google Maps screenshot (see below) – network coverage permitting.
We didn’t have a full charge, but we, err, charged onwards toward Grants Pass.
The second word of that town’s name made us both excited and anxious, as it was clearly in a mountainous area. That meant presumably good driving roads, but also could mean big battery depletion – we’ve seen EVs lose rapid charge when they’re hauling up hills in the past.
As the I5-S snaked up and down steep climbs we didn’t go easy on the car, as we wanted to experience whether it could keep up with traffic (travelling at more than 70 miles per hour, or 112km/h, where suitable) and hold its charge at a respectable level. And after just 120 kilometres it was time to button off and drop the speed to a more manageable level to ensure we made it to Grants Pass.
We did … just – with just eight miles (or 13km) of range remaining. And we knew that this was a close call, because Tesla had told us before we left that there’s no reserve tank – when the batteries are flat, they’re flat: just like a smartphone.
It was clear from the energy monitor app on the big screen that hills suck when it comes to driving the Model S. Seriously, check out the below photo.
This was one of the first instances where we really thought about the compromises of the car. Namely that it isn’t as quick to refill as a conventional internal combustion engine vehicle.
But we left it for a good 90 minutes at Grants Pass, entertaining ourselves at the local Sizzler restaurant over a bite to eat. Charge done, we had – again – 430km of range (we started to question why the company’s site quoted a range of 460km… and we’re still waiting for an answer).
From there it didn’t get any easier for the Tesla, as we soon climbed the Siskiyou Pass on our way towards the Californian border, our third and final state line crossing. The climb took us to an altitude of 4310 feet (1310m), the highest point on the lengthy I5 highway.
With a full ‘tank’ and our overnight destination just 150km away, we weren’t concerned about our state of charge for this part of the drive, and things flattened out a bit from there as we powered on. It was dark by this time, but we could see the silhouette of the 4322m peak looming as we came in to town.
This was our first overnight destination with its very own Supercharger station, and, as comfortable as the Tesla was, we decided to pay for a room at the Best Western before hitting the hay at midnight. The plan? A 5.30am start to catch the sunrise in this sleepy mountainside town.
And what a sunrise it was.
By this point of our trip it was becoming increasingly clear that planning ahead is a huge part of the road trip experience in the Tesla, as you need to think about how far you’re actually likely to get. You can’t just jump in and go for a long drive.
And to be honest, we found that we were topping off the batteries more often than we initially predicted we would. And it’s not like you’re stopping at a servo for a couple of minutes – you need to stop, park, plug in, and let the charger do it’s thing for at least 20 minutes.
The upside is that it’s something of an enforced mechanism for drivers to stop, revive, survive.
Total distance covered so far: 861km
Leg three: Mount Shasta to San Francisco
With a Supercharger at our immediate disposal at the hotel – and a sunny morning with stunning scenery at hand – we went for a punt in the Model S, exploring its capabilities through a range of twisty roads with sharp corners.
It didn’t disappoint, with excellent cornering stability and high-quality ride comfort over some shoddy surfaces, particularly given its 21-inch wheels and 35-profile tyres. It certainly felt agile for a 2100-kilogram car.
Its acceleration was blinding, too, as we found when we tramped the throttle on an open section of road.
Truly, this thing hammers in a straight line, and we think the 0-100km/h claim of 4.4 seconds for the P85+ could be somewhat modest (a bit of research shows it has beaten its claim on several occasions – Tesla obviously thinks it better to under-promise and over-deliver when it comes to speed, if not battery range). As was the case with hilly driving, silly driving makes for fast loss of charge…
Back at the hotel we plugged in for a full charge while we fuelled ourselves for the next long leg.
But before we hit the road, we got talking to a fellow Tesla driver at the hotel’s Supercharger spot who had some interesting cargo on board – 225 kilograms of Almond Roca toffees for their frozen yoghurt store in San Francisco.
They told us about the brilliance of the Tesla smartphone app, which allowed them to keep an eye on the internal temperature from afar. As they were charging their car, they hooked up to it via smartphone and turned on the air conditioning to keep things from melting.
The app also allows you to monitor the state of charge, honk the horn, flash the lights, lock and unlock the car and also open or close the sunroof. For those who often forget where they parked, there’s also a geolocator that can help you find it (or keep an eye on the kids if they take the car out for a drive).
We tried to download and use the app as part of the experience with the Tesla, but it wasn’t possible with our test car due to a login issue.
After nabbing a few Almond Rocas for the road (thanks, new Tesla friends!) we rolled on down the I5-S.
The hilly roads continued towards Shasta Lake, and with traffic more prevalent during the late morning we again kept an eye on our pace as we cruised south towards Corning. A quick stretch of the legs – and yet another quick top-up – and we made our way off the I5-S (to the 505, briefly) as we kept onwards past Sacramento.
It was becoming apparent that the Superchargers were spaced out every 100 miles (161km) or so, which is closer than we’d anticipated. But we found it best to stop and top-up at every given opportunity, something our support car no doubt found frustrating (they were filling up every 300 miles, in less than five minutes).
It just so happened that the next opportunity to refresh the Model S came beyond the mountains and past some agricultural areas at the Vacaville Outlets.
Yep. More time wasted shopping for things we probably didn’t need.
From Vacaville it was open highway cruising towards San Francisco, where we’d be setting anchor for a few days to explore Fog City, including its legendary Little Italy food hub and of course the cool sights of the Presidio and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.
But before we arrived at our hotel, disaster struck.
Well, perhaps that’s overstating it, but as we were driving down a pothole-mangled suburban street, the front left tyre suffered a puncture.
“Easy,” I hear you say. “Get out the spare wheel and change it over.”
If only it was that simple. But there is no spare wheel available in any Model S, and in the US, you don’t even get a repair kit (Aussie buyers will, though).
So we consulted our handbook and called Tesla Customer Care, because that’s what it said to do. It was odd that such a technologically-advanced car didn’t have an helpline app integrated into the media system, particularly given the operator informed us they had our location based on the car’s registration.
We were told we’d have a spare wheel brought to our location, and about 90 minutes later that’s exactly what happened, when a huge shiny tabletop tow truck arrived with a single spare wheel on the back.
We got talking to Tony, an Afghanistan war veteran who regaled us with tales of his time serving his country. He even showed us a few photos on his phone.
And while it would have been enlightening to listen to his stories all night, time was getting away, and with the new, smaller 19-inch wheel (with higher-profile tyre) fitted, we headed to our hotel.
Upon arrival we were pleased to find an EV charging point – not a fast Tesla one, but a more time-consuming, lower output public point (we were in California, home of the hybrid!) – that offered electric car owners the chance to charge up for free.
After a couple of days of exploring – we can’t recommend highly enough the viewing areas in the Golden Gate Recreational Park across the bridge, with a great view of the city – and having had our tyre replaced at the local Tesla Service Centre, it was time to once again hit the road.
Total distance covered so far: 1304km
Leg four: San Francisco to Los Angeles
The final leg of our trip was to be the most thrilling – not just because we decided to get off the I5-S and see some of the stunning Californian coastline, but because we’d have to take a big risk in doing so.
We juiced up before we made our way too close to the coast, as there are no Supercharger fast charge stations along the iconic Highway 1 stretch that spans from Carmel, south of San Fran, for a few hundred kilometres through Big Sur, and down towards San Simeon.
That’s right – this bit was like going bush without a jerry can. A glance at the Supercharger map made it clear that there were no places to recharge along the way – well, at least not in a timely manner.
Some slow, public charge points were available for use in the more built-up areas, but those require either a subscription to use, or cost more than topping up with petrol: the cheapest fuel you can buy in the US at the time of our trip was about 79c per litre, equating to about $5 per 100km in something like a Prius; the chargepoint we found cost $4.10 for 7kWh, or about 50km of indicated range.
Still, if that was the only time it was going to cost us money to add some extra juice to the tank, it seemed a small price to pay. So we plugged in for a short time and then hesitantly headed down the winding, scenic coast road.
The vistas were amazing, and the road impeccable. This is a route that makes The Great Ocean Road in Victoria seem boring.
But as nice as the views were, our minds were on the range we had remaining. And it reiterated that no matter how far this Model S has moved the benchmark for EVs, there’s simply no getting around the fact that running out is hard to resolve.
It’s probably how the first petrol vehicle owners felt more than 100 years ago, when there were no petrol stations to pull in to along the way to the beach or the mountains.
Thankfully, though, we didn’t run out – even with a short detour to have a quick squiz at the well-known Hearst Castle museum. If you’re not aware, the Hearst family were hugely involved in print media in its heyday, and they made enough money to build an Italianesque 165-room castle on top of a hill that can be spotted from miles away. We didn’t have time to take the tour, though, as we needed to make it to LA.
With only 42km of range remaining and 28km distance to travel to our Supercharger stop in Atascadero, this was the finest we cut it during our entire trip, and we arrived with – happily – 22km of range still left over. So we decided to leave the car to recover, while we hit up the local coffee shop to calm our nerves. Triple espresso, thanks.
Our final stretch of freeway towards the City of Angels got us thinking about how the Model S had stacked up as a long-distance driver.
There’s no denying it is comfortable enough, and in the end we didn’t actually want to get to LA – it would have been just fine with us if we’d had the chance to go explore some of the other states where Superchargers are well spread.
This is the first vehicle that has really proved that an electric car is capable of swallowing highway miles with ease … provided there’s suitable charging infrastructure along the route.
When we arrived in to LA, we had just enough time to go and check out Hollywood and Beverly Hills before returning the Tesla to its rightful owners – with, you guessed it, just a few kilometres of range remaining.
Total distance covered: 2042km
As we found in our full US review of the Tesla Model S, it is a very good car. That opinion was never going to change as part of this trip.
What has changed, however, are our thoughts on whether it is possible to do a long-distance road trip in an electric car. At first we thought it would be painful and at times during the drive we thought it may not make it to the next Supercharger.
But in truth, the answer is a resounding yes – but with an obvious caveat: infrastructure.
We didn’t just go from point A (Seattle) to point B (Los Angeles). We ran around each of the cities we visited, and we admit that’s partly why we topped up more than we thought we would – and why our grand total of kilometres covered was so high (see below). But the aim of trip wasn’t to see if we could make it run out of battery – we’ll leave that to Top Gear – but to see what it was like to live with in an environment that has the right infrastructure already in place.
Tesla still hasn’t announced any of its plans for its Supercharger network in Australia – but if we were to hazard a guess, that route between Brisbane and Melbourne (via Sydney and Canberra, not to mention Newcastle, Wollongong and other cities) looks pretty appealing – indeed, we’d suspect stations around those and other major cities in the coming years.
Time will tell whether the Model S can succeed in Australia where many other electric cars have failed. But if the Supercharger network spreads as quickly in Australia as it has and will continue to in the US, it could prove revolutionary for plug-in cars in the sunburnt country.
Photos: Mitchell Oke and Matt Campbell
Video: Mitchell Oke, Matt Campbell, Tony Crawford